The Power of the Hive Mind and the Echo Chamber

Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner conducted an experiment where a number of test subjects were asked trivia questions, then tested to determine whether their instinct was to search their mind or to search the web for the answers. As it turned out, participants were often inclined to think of computers in response to hard questions; our “knowledge” as we know it is collective, the information we answer questions with is often subconsciously just collected from the internet instinctively (SOURCE). This idea of the internet being used as a source of information is nothing new; but the implications of it are fascinating.

As internet users, we are interconnected, creating one huge network of knowledge acting as a transactive memory system, as Orion Jones put it in his article “The Internet as Hive Mind.” This comes with dangers, though; firstly, we are creating a society of people who rely very heavily on their mobile devices. Losing access to our world’s collective knowledge base could be literally considered losing a part of our minds: do you believe that as we have become more reliant on technology, we’ve begun to store less and less information in our own brains, knowing we can default to the internet for answers?

In my opinion, the biggest danger of essentially integrating the internet with our brains is the assumption that the first viable piece of information we see on the internet is not only true, but is the only truth. This brings me to the “echo chamber” of the web; we discussed in class the idea that targeted advertising and curated news feeds bring about extremism in points of view. For example, Facebook will show a left-leaning user news articles portraying liberalism, the DNC, and so on in a positive light; Facebook will show a right-leaning user articles that portray those things negatively (and the opposite goes for right-leaning users). When the internet is treated as a functional arm of our minds, and the information on it is not only taken in as fact but as our facts—things we know rather than are learning—this can create a dangerous paradigm.

In my last blog post, I discussed the idea of “fake news” and briefly touched on echo chambers. But let’s set aside the misinformation on the web; extremism can come simply because views are never challenged. We discussed in class the downsides of the “upvote/downvote” system, best exemplified by Reddit (but prevalent all over the web). The biggest downside comes from the idea of the “tyranny of the majority” – if 51% of Reddit likes a political candidate, the articles written in that candidate’s favor will end up having a positive score, giving them a better chance of being on the “front page” of Reddit. Negative articles, or articles supporting other candidates, will be hidden due to negative scores. Comments on Reddit posts rarely show fierce discourse; often comment replies will deviate very slightly from parent comments, if at all. This is because the upvote/downvote system is based in the idea that things that are popular should be seen more, making them more popular.

How do we, as people, remain intellectually independent? What strides can we make to truly know things, rather than share knowledge collectively? Is it a bad thing to rely on our phones to answer hard questions? I mean, if the phones will always be here, what’s the difference between them and our brains? Is it healthy to intentionally seek information that angers us, or that we disagree with? If so, how do we do that when only things we agree with are shoved in our faces? Thanks for reading.

2 Comments »

  1. Jim Waldo

    September 30, 2017 @ 8:58 pm

    1

    Interesting connection between our reliance on network access to information and the echo chambers that have developed. Not a connection I had made before, but I like it…

    I had always thought that I was more or less free of dependence on my electronic devices (I seem to forget to grab my cell phone about once a month) until my computer died on me a couple of years ago. While it was in the shop, I was desperate– I realized that email was my memory, my classes relied on my slides, and all of my work was stored electronically (I finally went out and bought a chromebook so I could survive). Not an experience I would like to repeat…

  2. jakobgilbert

    October 4, 2017 @ 1:38 am

    2

    It’s hard to tell just how reliant we are until we have to live without our phone/computer. We walk around every day with little rectangles that have access to nearly the entirety of mankind’s knowledge. It almost inspires guilt in me to not be making better use of this resource that would blow the minds of people throughout (even very recent) history. The art of mental math is likely long dead, along with many other off-the-cuff feats that have been made silly by the convenience of the smart-phone. This could be interpreted as good, bad, or neutral…as we said in class, though, all new technologies come with nay-sayers warning of the cognitive harms, and we often look back and laugh at them. I think I’ll keep my iPhone.

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